Landmark Architecture As Cultural Hubs
The Schindler House in L.A. and the Austrian Cultural Forum New York
By Christoph Thun-Hohenstein
Located at the landmark house that Austrian modernist Rudolf M. Schindler built for himself at the beginning of the 1920s, the Museum für angewandte Kunst (MAK – museum of applied arts) Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles plays a central role for the positioning of the museum as a forum of cultural and artistic exchange with designers, artists, and architects around the world.
Running this contemporary, experimental and multi-disciplinary branch in Los Angeles, the MAK affords a unique contribution to preserve and promote the experimental spirit of the Austrian born pioneer of modern architecture and forerunner of a new architectural concept in California. When I first visited the Schindler House in the late 1990s, I was impressed by its concept and construction.
Designed as a cooperative live and work space for two families, it redefines residential architecture. The raw concrete walls and sliding canvas panels, as well as the open floor plan integrating the house with the surrounding areas challenge traditional assumptions about domestic areas. As one of the earliest modern houses, it has influenced and inspired generations of architects worldwide.
The MAK brought new life to this architectural masterpiece in a quiet Los Angeles neighborhood. Established as a Californian branch of the MAK in 1994 in cooperation with the Federal Chancellery of Austria and the Friends of the Schindler House (FOSH), the MAK Center for Art and Architecture achieved to revive the Schindler House as an internationally recognized cultural hotspot. Following in the footsteps of R.M. Schindler and his wife Pauline, who made the house a center for avant-garde artists and intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, the MAK Center has again become a vibrant location for the artistic community.
Today the MAK Center is operating from three of the most important buildings of R. M. Schindler in Los Angeles, milestones in the history of world architecture. The Schindler House at Kings Road is the forum for the persistent cultural exchange between Vienna and Los Angeles, focusing on the new and prospective tendencies of art, architecture and their intersections. Purchased by the Republic of Austria in 1995, the Schindler-designed Mackey Apartment House (1939), the second base of MAK Center operations, is the permanent residential center for the MAK Artists and Architects in Residence Program.
One of the internationally most sought-after scholarships, the residency program allows young international artists and architects to live and work in Los Angeles for six month periods. Each resident is provided a space to live and work at the Mackey Apartments, which also feature a penthouse guest apartment and house the archives of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Each session culminates in a final projects exhibition.
In 2007, the former owner Russ Leland generously made the acquisition of the Fitzpatrick-Leland House possible. From 2008-2010, the Fitzpatrick-Leland House served as a base for the MAK Center’s Urban Future Initiative (UFI), a fellowship program in which cultural thinkers from diverse nations entered into dialogue about urban space with Los Angeles-based scholars and practitioners. Since then, the MAK Center has dedicated the house to small-scale events and the lodging of international cultural researchers visiting Los Angeles for artistic and scholarly pursuits.
The MAK Center exemplifies an extraordinary strategy with an emphasis on experimental, boundary-defying work. Using (both) the site and the relationship to Vienna, the MAK Center explores the intersections of art and design through exhibitions, lectures, symposia, performances, film screenings, concerts and publication projects, often developed with guest curators, artists, and architects. In 2016, the MAK Center again delivered on its commitment to high-quality programming.
In the Schindler House, the exhibition season was kicked off by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, who transformed the visitors themselves into exhibits with his legendary “One Minute Sculptures” (January 28–March 27, 2016). Other highlights included the exhibition “House Housing: An Untimely History of Architecture and Real Estate” (April 9–May 8, 2016), realized in collaboration with the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, which explores the correlations between architecture and public-sector spatial planning.
The exhibition by the artist Stephanie Taylor (October 21, 2016– January 8, 2017) deals with language as an acoustic phenomenon. The main focus of the Artists and Architects in Residence Program is on the purposeful long-term support of individual young artists and architects, and on creating new interdisciplinary opportunities and confrontations through lively exchange.
This unique program is funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture in cooperation with the MAK – Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/ Contemporary Art, Vienna. For the academic year 2016/2017, 311 submissions from 47 nations arrived at the MAK. Many former residents have gone on to earn international reputation, including Gelatin, Hans Schabus, Elena Kovylina, Gilbert Bretterbauer, Luisa Lambri, Jun Yang, Swetlana Heger & Plamen Dejanov, Kaspar Kovitz, Una Szeeman, Mathias Poledna and David Zink Yee. The MAK Center as a vibrant interdisciplinary hub combines exceptional artistic positions of the U.S. West Coast and the Central European region and encompasses thereby the aspirations of the MAK to act as a catalyzer for an international dialogue.
Whenever I come to Los Angeles, I am tempted to compare L.A. to New York, where I worked for eight years as Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY). There are important links, though in objective terms a comparison between these two cities does not really make sense. The same is true for the two institutions, as the ACFNY is the most prestigious cultural diplomacy outpost of the Austrian Foreign Ministry, whereas the MAK Center is a celebrated branch of a top Austrian museum.
The mandates in both institutions are different and so are the disciplines covered: In Los Angeles, the disciplines are above all modernist, contemporary art, architecture, and to a lesser extent design; in New York, a wide spectrum of disciplines ranging from art, architecture, and design to music, literature, film, dance, etc. Being Austria’s cultural flagship in the U.S., the ACFNY has always understood its mission to extend well beyond the tristate area and, assisted by the high visibility of its outstanding Raimund Abraham-designed building and its excellent programs, to set the tone for official Austrian cultural programming in the United States.
While the two institutions have cooperated on several occasions, the MAK Center’s activities are clearly linked to the MAK’s mission as one of the world’s most important museums of applied and contemporary arts, as well as to its residency program, while dedicated to an even larger degree to Rudolf Schindler’s legacy. Schindler is and remains the main reason of the MAK Center’s existence.
Raimund Abraham, the architect of ACFNY’s outstanding building in midtown Manhattan, was a huge admirer of Schindler’s work. I will always remember our long conversations on Schindler and his special position among architects of the 20th Century. While Raimund’s architecture bears little resemblance to Schindler’s clearly West Coast-inspired buildings, the two have more in common than one thinks.
Schindler was less successful in the market than Neutra and others, but certainly more fundamental, profound and original in his architecture. Today, Schindler’s buildings, and especially the Kings Road House, rank among the world’s most important modernist houses. Raimund, too, was never a star architect courted by developers and hyped in the media all over the world, and yet his position among key architects of the last fifty years is beyond doubt.
The Austrian Cultural Forum New York is Raimund’s masterpiece. It brings his best qualities as an outstanding architect and profound thinker together in a single building. I had the privilege of spending many hours with Raimund during the final three years before the building’s opening in April 2002. I always respected his comments on the cultural programs my team and I put together in the following years. At our last meeting on the eve of my departure from the ACFNY in late August 2007, Raimund confided to me he was very happy that the ACFNY’s programs had lived up to the architectural qualities of his building. It is one of the compliments that matter most in my life.
Christoph Thun Hohenstein, born 1960, is an Austrian diplomat, art manager and publicist. Between 1984 and 1993, he was posted in Abidjan, Geneva and Bonn. In 1993, he was responsible for the legal aspects of Austria’s accession to the EU. From 1999-2007, he served as Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York. Since September 2011, he has been at the helm of the Museum of Applied Arts (Museum für angewandte Kunst – MAK) in Vienna. In the spring of 2016, his contract as director of the museum was extended for five years.